The paradox of time travel of the 12 Monkeys - show & film

05 March 2023
"12 Monkeys" is a masterclass in science fiction storytelling, director Terry Gilliam weaves together elements of time travel, dystopian futures, and human drama in a way that is both thrilling and thought-provoking

The film is a true classic of the genre, and stands out among the many other films and stories that explore the concept of time travel.

One of the things that sets the film apart from other time travel stories is its dark and gritty tone. From the opening scenes of the film, we are plunged into a bleak and foreboding world, where humanity is on the brink of extinction and hope seems all but lost. This sense of doom and desperation permeates the entire story, and creates a sense of tension and urgency that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat.

Another key element of the film's success is its exploration of the concept of causality. As the story unfolds, we see the ways in which James Cole's actions in the past contribute to the very events he was sent back to prevent, creating a closed loop of causality that is both fascinating and haunting. 

This paradoxical nature of time travel is explored in depth throughout the film, raising questions about the nature of free will and determinism that are both profound and unsettling.

Of course, the film's success is also due in no small part to the outstanding performances of its cast. Bruce Willis delivers a nuanced and complex portrayal of James Cole, capturing both his strength and vulnerability in equal measure. Brad Pitt's performance as the manic and unpredictable Jeffrey Goines is also a standout, creating a character that is both repulsive and magnetic in equal measure.

In terms of its place among classic science fiction films featuring time travel, "12 Monkeys" is certainly one of the most notable and enduring. Its exploration of time travel and causality has influenced countless other films and stories, and its dark and foreboding tone has set the standard for many other dystopian sci-fi tales. Whether you are a fan of time travel stories or just a lover of great cinema, "12 Monkeys" is a film that should not be missed.

12 monkeys

So what of the time travel paradoxes?

In the film "12 Monkeys," Bruce Willis plays James Cole, a prisoner in the year 2035 who is sent back in time to gather information about a deadly virus that wiped out most of humanity in 1996. However, the more Cole travels through time, the more he realizes that his actions are not necessarily changing the past, but rather contributing to the very events he was sent back to prevent.

The time travel paradox in "12 Monkeys" is a variation of the "predestination paradox." This paradox suggests that events in the past are predetermined and cannot be changed, no matter how hard the time traveler tries. Instead, the time traveler's actions end up contributing to the events they were trying to prevent, creating a closed loop of causality.

Throughout the film, we see Cole's attempts to change the course of events in 1996. He tries to warn people about the virus, track down the people responsible for its creation, and even sacrifice himself to prevent its release. However, each of these attempts ends up being futile, as the virus is released anyway and Cole is sent back to 2035, where he discovers that the virus has not been eradicated, but rather mutated and become even deadlier.

The paradox comes to a head in the film's final scenes, where Cole realizes that his younger self witnessed his own death as a child, and that this traumatic event inspired him to become the time traveler he is today. In other words, Cole's own actions in the past created the very future he was trying to prevent, making his journey through time ultimately futile.

In this way, Bruce Willis' character becomes a tragic figure, caught in a cycle of events that he cannot escape. Despite his best efforts to change the course of history, he is ultimately powerless to do so, as his actions only contribute to the very events he was sent back to prevent. The film raises thought-provoking questions about the nature of time and causality, and challenges our assumptions about free will and determinism.

How does the show differ?  

The plot of the film and the show are similar in some ways, but diverge significantly in others. 

Both involve time travel and a deadly virus, but the show explores these concepts in much greater depth. The show also introduces new elements, such as the "Army of the 12 Monkeys" and the concept of the "Witness," which are not present in the film.

The time travel paradoxes in the TV show "12 Monkeys" by season

schull 12 monkies show

Season 1:

In season 1, we are introduced to the concept of time travel and the "bootstrap paradox," in which an object or information is sent back in time and becomes the very thing that inspired it in the first place. 

This paradox is illustrated in the plotline surrounding the "Night Room," a mysterious chamber where the scientists in the future are trying to extract a sample of the original virus that wipes out most of humanity. 

The virus sample is eventually revealed to be Cole's own blood, which he sends back in time to be extracted from his past self. This creates a loop in which Cole's blood is the only thing that can save humanity, but it exists in the first place because it was sent back in time.

Season 2:

In season 2, we see the introduction of a new paradox: the "predestination paradox," in which events in the past are predetermined and cannot be changed, despite the attempts of time travelers to do so. This paradox is embodied in the character of Jennifer Goines, who becomes a primary and is able to see the past, present, and future simultaneously. She realizes that her attempts to change the past are actually causing events to unfold exactly as they were meant to, in a predetermined cycle. 

This paradox is also illustrated in the plotline surrounding the identity of the Witness, who is revealed to be a future version of Cole himself.

Season 3:

In season 3, we see the consequences of the bootstrap and predestination paradoxes play out in a more complex and interconnected way. 

We are introduced to the concept of the "red forest," a time loop in which time and space are completely destroyed, and the only way to prevent it is to ensure that a series of events unfold exactly as they have already happened. This creates a situation in which characters are trying to prevent events that they know must happen, in order to avoid the catastrophic consequences of the red forest.

Season 4:

In the final season, the show takes the paradoxes to their logical extreme. We see characters actively trying to break out of the predetermined cycles of time, even as they realize that their attempts to change the past will only cause events to unfold as they were meant to. This creates a sense of fatalism and inevitability, as the characters realize that they are caught in a cycle of events that they can't escape. 

However, the show also suggests that even within this cycle, there is still room for choice and agency, and that the characters can still make meaningful decisions that have an impact on their own lives and the lives of others.

Overall, "12 Monkeys" is a complex and thought-provoking exploration of the paradoxes and mysteries of time travel, and it raises fascinating questions about the nature of causality, free will, and determinism.

Here are some trivia facts about the "12 Monkeys" film and show:


  1. Director Terry Gilliam, who is known for his work on other classic science fiction films such as "Brazil" and "Time Bandits."
  2. The film was inspired by the short film "La Jetée" by Chris Marker, which is also a time travel story set in a post-apocalyptic world.
  3. Bruce Willis originally turned down the role of James Cole, but changed his mind after meeting with Terry Gilliam and discussing the character.
  4. The famous scene where James Cole is being interrogated while strapped to a chair and forced to watch images of war and destruction was inspired by real-life experiments conducted by the US military during the Korean War.
  5. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor for Brad Pitt, and Best Art Direction/Set Decoration.


  1. The show was created by Travis Fickett and Terry Matalas, who were also writers on the show "Nikita."
  2. The show was filmed in Toronto, Canada, and features many recognizable locations throughout the city.
  3. The show features several nods to the film, including a brief appearance by Bruce Willis in the first season, and a character named Jeffrey Goines, played by Emily Hampshire.
  4. The character of Jennifer Goines, played by Emily Hampshire, was originally intended to be male in the show, but was changed to a female character after the creators saw Hampshire's audition.
  5. The show was praised for its use of time travel storytelling, with many critics comparing it favorably to other shows and films in the genre, including "Doctor Who" and "Back to the Future."


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About the author Jimmy Jangles

My name is Jimmy Jangles, the founder of The Astromech. I have always been fascinated by the world of science fiction, especially the Star Wars universe, and I created this website to share my love for it with fellow fans.

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